Sunday, May 30, 2021

Book Review: The Remembrance of Earth's Past trilogy

The Remembrance of Earth's Past is a trilogy written by the Chinese science fiction author, Liu Cixin.[1] It consists of three novels: The Three-Body Problem (2006), The Dark Forest (2008), and Death's End (2010). Ken Liu's English translation of The Three-Body Problem won the 2015 Hugo Award for Best Novel and Liu's translation of Death's End won the 2017 Locus Award for Best Science Fiction Novel. These two novels also won the Chinese Galaxy Award.[2] Some spoilers ahead.

Review of The Three-Body Problem: In this novel, a Chinese scientist (Ye Wenjie) accidentally makes contact with an alien civilization from a plant orbiting Alpha Centauri. Because she is disillusioned by the violence and political opportunism of China's Cultural Revolution (1966–1976), she helps the aliens ("Trisolarans"[3]) figure out where Earth is so that they can invade. The bulk of the novel follows efforts to uncover a conspiracy (the Earth–Trisolaris Organization or ETO) to help the Trisolarans take over Earth and a video game that the Trisolarans use to recruit people to the ETO. The book ends with the revelation that the Trisolarians have already launched an invasion fleet and that they have deployed a sophisticated device, called a sophon, that will impair mankind's technological progress and spy on everything we do.

What I found most remarkable about this book is that there are two political movements, dominant in Western democracies, that the Trisolarans exploit in order to impair Earth's economic development (prior to the arrival of the sophon). Those two political movements are environmentalism and racial equality. Why is this so remarkable? Because it reveals what Liu Cixin (a true believer in the superiority of the current Chinese system) believes are vulnerabilities in Western democracies. And if Liu Cixin believes it, it's not a far stretch to believe that the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party believe it, too. This is why China lectures the West about environmentalism. Not because they actually care about protecting the environment (otherwise they'd stop building new coal-fired power plants [4]), but because they want Western democracies to hobble their own economic development so that China can get ahead. And this is why China lectures the West about racial inequality. Not because they actually care about human wellbeing (otherwise they'd stop their own genocide of the Uyghurs [5]), but because they want Western democracies to be paralyzed by political discord over racial grievances so that they can expand without retaliation.

Problems with the novel: The Alpha Centauri system is approximately as old as the Solar System. Since the development of Trisolaran civilization is intermittently disrupted by getting too close to or too far away from its stars, it should develop more slowly than Earth civilization. Instead, they are much more advanced.

Review of The Dark Forest: In this novel, mankind is desperately trying to figure out a way to defeat the Trisolarans. This is complicated by the fact that the sophons can read paper documents and digital files and listen to conversations. The only things that are hidden from the sophons are human thoughts. So four people, called the Wallfacers, are given broad latitude to come up with plans to defeat the Trisolarans. To keep their plans secret (and therefore impossible to disrupt), the Wallfacers must not explain what they are doing. To be figured out is to fail. Consequently, the Trisolarans recruit three members of the ETO to be "Wallbreakers" and figure out the plans of the Wallfacers. One of the Wallfacers, Luo Ji, is a relative nobody. The Trisolarans think Luo Ji will be incapacitated by the responsibility of being a Wallfacer, so they don't bother assigning him a Wallbreaker (i.e., he is his own Wallbreaker). One by one, the Wallbreakers each defeat their respective Wallfacers until only Luo Ji is left. At first Luo Ji uses the carte blanche powers that are given to him to lead a life of self-indulgence. Eventually, though, his hand is forced and he devises a way to stop the Trisolaran invasion that involves mutually assured destruction.

Again, what is most remarkable about this book is what it reveals about the mindset of the Chinese Communist Party: specifically, that there cannot be prolonged peaceful coexistence between two powers. Since resources are finite, the two powers will eventually come into conflict over a resource, so it makes the most sense to destroy any competitors as soon as possible. This is called a "dark forest strike"[6] and it comprises the author's solution to the Fermi Paradox.[7] The title of the book is inspired by the selva oscura from the beginning of Dante's Inferno (Canto I, lines 1–2): the forest (i.e., the universe) is thick and dark, making it impossible to find the dangerous beasts that are lurking there. Making your location known will endanger you by helping the beasts to find you, but will not help you to find them. Your only recourse is to be quiet (hide your location, your intentions, etc.) and hope that you find them (and destroy them) before they find you (and destroy you). Thus the author reveals that the Chinese Communist Party does not respect the right of any other people or society to exist—we are all current and future threats to their resources, ambitions, and existence. If and when they believe that they can prevail against the current world order, they will strike and they will be merciless.

Problems with the novel: At the beginning of the novel, the Trisolarans learn that humans are capable of deception. This is a foreign concept to them because their thoughts are always broadcast to their neighbors. How can you lie if everyone can see what you're thinking? However, the Trisolarans quickly intuit the "dark forest problem" (despite their unfamiliarity with deception and privacy) and the humans are embarrassingly slow to realize the concept, despite centuries of distrust, deception, and exploitation when new cultures come into contact.[8] It's completely inexplicable that a civilization that has no concept of dishonesty or hidden information would leapfrog so quickly ahead of a civilization imbued with those ideas.

Review of Death's End: This novel begins with the exchange of knowledge and culture between the Trisolarans and humanity. Then, in a moment of human complacency, the Trisolarans attack and temporarily gain the upper hand. Humanity eventually retaliates, but in so doing, the location of Earth is exposed to the broader universe. The Trisolarans divert their invasion fleet since Earth is no longer safe, and humanity must now confront how to survive an imminent dark forest attack. Humanity manages to plant a human being (Yun Tianming) inside the Trisolaran fleet. He manages to send humanity a message to tell them how to avoid perishing in a dark forest strike. To hide his intentions from the Trisolarans, he communicates this information using a series of three fairytales. Humanity misinterprets these fairytales and eventually succumbs to a dark forest strike. Only a few people manage to escape and are left to skip through space and time in an inhospitable universe.

The final novel of the trilogy is an abrupt departure in tone. The previous two books are ultimately optimistic, even though humanity is confronted by a superior foe. In The Three-Body Problem, the main characters manage to uncover what the Trisolarans and ETO are doing. In The Dark Forest, the main characters find a way to halt the invasion of Earth. Death's End, on the other hand, is distinctly nihilistic. Everything that humanity tries ultimately fails. And when they try to defy the ruthlessness of the universe, by making choices based on "love" and "compassion", the result is human carnage. At the very end of the universe, everything (i.e., the universe itself) is shown to be meaningless. This pretty much sums up the atheistic mindset of communism and the indifference of its practitioners to its human costs. The only thing that was good about this book was the revelation about why the universe is (mostly) three-dimensional.

Problems with the novel: Another way to translate this title is "Dead End" [9], which is a more accurate description of the plot (in more ways than one). First, through a combination of hibernation and relativistic time dilation, the novel takes us to the death/end of the universe and all of the beings that live in it. Second, the problems that are raised in the first and second books, and that continue to be problems at the beginning of the this book, are never resolved. They just…dead-end. Third, do we ever find out what Yun Tianming's fairytales actually meant? Nope. Dead end. Fourth, the main character (Cheng Xin [10]), is one of the most worthless and irritating characters I have encountered in fiction. I kept hoping that we'd switch to other viewpoints (like the previous two novels), but she just never went away. Every time she was faced with an important decision regarding the future of humanity she made the wrong choice. Every. Single. Time.[11]

Overall Review: Overall, the unintended message is clear: the Chinese Communist Party is ruthless and untrustworthy. In my own experience, Chinese people who don't have a direct connection with the CCP are kind, wonderful people; Chinese people who do have a direction connection with the CCP are terrifying.

Another theme that stands out in these novels, is that once the Trisolarian threat becomes apparent, humanity quickly adopts a totalitarian and communist attitude. It's as though all of the other peoples of the world are trying to achieve Chinese-style communism, they just haven't realized it, yet. The elites in the post-first contact government decide what is best for all and they act ruthlessly to prevent any dissenting actions. Those who are not part of the elite are always expected to subsume their personal welfare for that "greater good" that the elite know so much about. This is always done in the name of equality, but the result is always to force the worst possible outcome on everyone rather than let any one (other than those selfsame elites) experience a superior outcome. This is the epitome of communism, yet Liu Cixin doesn't even see this as a problem. As far as he is concerned, it is better for all of humanity to be destroyed (equally) than for some (or even most) to survive.

One more thought: I had trouble keeping track of most of the characters (though the dramatis personae at the beginning of each book was a useful reference). I read plenty of science fiction and fantasy books, so it's not simply because the names are non-English. I also struggle to keep track of characters in Russian novels.[12] The one thing that Russian and Chinese novels have in common is that they usually write out the whole name of each character. So I'm guessing it would be easier for me to keep track of "Miao" than "Wang Miao"; and it would be easier for me to keep track of "Dmitry" than "Dmitry Prokofyich Razumikhin". Another possibility is that I just take longer to read novels translated from foreign languages. It's easier to forget characters when it's been weeks instead of days or hours since I last encountered them.


[1] In Chinese, the family name (Liu) is written first and the given name (Cixin) is written second. So if he were a Westerner, he'd write his name Cixin Liu.

[3] This Earth-based name for the aliens is based on the fact that the Alpha Centauri system contains three stars: Alpha Centauri A, Alpha Centauri B, and Proxima Centauri. This, along with a longstanding problem in physics, forms the basis of the book's title. The Trisolarans want to take over Earth because their civilization is vulnerable to the instability of their planet's orbit around the three stars. Thus, there is also a subtle political statement going on here. Just like the Trisolaran planetary system is unstable because it has multiple stars, having multiple competing governments or government systems is a problem. And just like the our planetary system is stable because it has a single star, a single (authoritarian) government is superior.

[6] Outside of the novel, this is called a Hobbesian trap.

[7] The Fermi paradox is the contradiction between predictions that alien civilizations should be common and our failure to detect any. See paradox.

[8] As Stephen Hawking put it in 2016, "One day, we might receive a signal from [an extrasolar] planet [...]. But we should be wary of answering back. Meeting an advanced civilization could be like Native Americans encountering Columbus. That didn't turn out so well."

[9] As far as I can determine, the actual translation of the Chinese title (死神永生) is "The Death of Immortality" or perhaps "The Never-Ending Death".

[10] Her first name (心, xin) means "heart", "mind", "thought", "idea", "intention", or "core". See心#Definitions. Her last name (程) means "journey" (among other things). See程#Definitions. So her name could imply that her journey is the core or heart or main idea of the novel. Toward the end of the novel (and the universe), another character tells her that she shouldn't doubt herself (even though she's repeatedly been shown to have made the wrong choice): "I want to let you know that you didn’t do anything wrong. Humanity chose you, which meant they chose to treat life and everything else with love, even if they had to pay a great price. You fulfilled the wish of the world, carried out their values, and executed their choice. You really didn’t do anything wrong." (p. 570) Misplaced compassion is a terrible excuse for the billions of people who endured misery and death because of her poor choices. And on top of that, she wasn't chosen by the world—she was chosen by bureaucrats and politicians in two trans-national agencies (the UN and the Solar System Fleet; p. 164).

[11] I really despised this character. Thought you ought to know.

[12] Russian literature is more challenging, though, since everyone has three names as well as innumerable nicknames.

Image attributions:

"Dante finds himself lost in a gloomy wood", from an 1861 edition of Dante's Inferno, illustrated by Paul Gustave Doré (1832–1883). Available at Dore Inferno1.jpg.

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